Are most teachers able to teach a child with disabilities?

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Lisa Beymer, University Professor, Special Education Teacher

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I would echo this thought from The Institute for the Redesign of Learning above: "The answer should be 'yes', since most recently credentialed teachers must take at least one course on teaching students with special needs. The reality is a bit different, however, and it really seems to depend on the training of the teacher, the educational philosophy of that teacher, and how adaptable the teacher is."

Currently working in the University setting for a Teacher Preparation Program (TPP) that was recently ranked in the top 5% of the nation, I can tell you that TPPs are providing little direct training for general education teacher candidates on how to teach students with disabilities. Our candidates, for example, are only required to take 1 course throughout their 4-year study (Introduction to Students with Disabilities). Otherwise, their time in the TPP is set up very much like The Institute described above - focused on differentiation, adaptations, modifications, and the like (that usually can also be applied to students who are English Language Learners). The TPP works very hard to develop these skills in the candidates, but candidates do not necessarily receive specific training in the nitty-gritty details of instruction, support, or advocacy for students with disabilities. Their time working in the classroom with students with disabilities in minimal throughout their program, until they are in their full-time student teaching.

One of the most important characteristics to look for in a teacher who is preparing to support students with disabilities is their willingness. Their attitude and desire for improvement can take charge! There are endless resources (many for free) for general education teachers who are looking to learn more about supporting students with disabilities. This willing teacher will be present for every student meeting, patient in communicating with parents about their child, active in seeking out the special education teacher for support and suggestions, and ready to adapt their instruction and classroom environment to support all students.

(Special education teachers are required to be certified in special education in order to teach full-time. With the low retention rates and high demand for special education teachers, this is unfortunately not always the reality; teachers without special education teacher certification are hired with the understanding that they are at least seeking certification. It is a perpetuating, and discouraging, issue.)

The Institute for the Redesign of Learning, Our mission is simple: to empower individuals with special needs to take charge of their own learning and lives, making it possible for them to be competent, caring and contributing members of society.

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This is a great question!

The answer should be “yes”, since most recently credentialed teachers must take at least one course on teaching students with special needs. The reality is a bit different, however, and it really seems to depend on the training of the teacher, the educational philosophy of that teacher, and how adaptable the teacher is. I’ve seen great schools with a few teachers who were unwilling to work with special needs, and mediocre schools with teachers who were fantastic at teaching students with special needs.

Whether or not a teacher can work effectively with a child with special needs seems to depend mostly on the personal characteristics and training that teacher has received. Typical teaching programs teach staff how to differentiate instruction (make the instruction different for different student needs), and all curriculum is now built with differentiation, adaptations, and modifications suggested to the teaching staff. Your child will do best with a teacher who is willing to believe that your child CAN learn; who builds up your child’s strengths and is willing to acknowledge what areas your child is struggling with; and who is willing to accept different ways your child can meet their learning goals. You can assist your child by keeping open communication with the teacher on what seems to be working for your child, what he/she is struggling with, and asking the teacher to partner with you in helping your child succeed.

Tedra Osell, PhD, Parent of 2e teen, former homeschooler and college professor, SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator

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The answer is "it depends." I have known new teachers who had enormous empathy with kids and little training who were nonetheless very effective at working with disabled students, and experienced teachers with decades of experience who were not good at it. Legally speaking, children with disabilities who qualify for an IEP under the IDEA act are entitled to have teachers who have any necessary training--in fact, training for teachers can be part of a student's IEP.

Public schools are not legally allowed to say that they "can't" meet the needs of a student with a disability; they must teach all students, even if that means that the district has to pay for a private school. In practice, this can mean that a school has a legal and financial incentive to say that they can and will meet a student's needs even if they are not doing so effectively; parents of disabled children need to keep a close eye on how their children's educational needs are being met and handled and learn to advocate effectively for their kids.

That said, of course the vast majority of teachers choose to teach because they want to help children learn, and where teachers are ineffective working with disabled students, both formal and informal training (e.g., a parent simply explaining that a student with ADHD might need a touch on the shoulder to help focus his attention) can make a world of difference. In this sense, yes: most teachers are more than capable of working with disabled students if they understand the nature of the disability and know what kinds of accommodations and adjustments are necessary.

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